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Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel Paperback – January 1, 2001
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With precisely 35 canvases to his credit, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer represents one of the great enigmas of 17th-century art. The meager facts of his biography have been gleaned from a handful of legal documents. Yet Vermeer's extraordinary paintings of domestic life, with their subtle play of light and texture, have come to define the Dutch golden age. His portrait of the anonymous Girl with a Pearl Earring has exerted a particular fascination for centuries--and it is this magnetic painting that lies at the heart of Tracy Chevalier's second novel of the same title.
Girl with a Pearl Earring centers on Vermeer's prosperous Delft household during the 1660s. When Griet, the novel's quietly perceptive heroine, is hired as a servant, turmoil follows. First, the 16-year-old narrator becomes increasingly intimate with her master. Then Vermeer employs her as his assistant--and ultimately has Griet sit for him as a model. Chevalier vividly evokes the complex domestic tensions of the household, ruled over by the painter's jealous, eternally pregnant wife and his taciturn mother-in-law. At times the relationship between servant and master seems a little anachronistic. Still, Girl with a Pearl Earring does contain a final delicious twist.
Throughout, Chevalier cultivates a limpid, painstakingly observed style, whose exactitude is an effective homage to the painter himself. Even Griet's most humdrum duties take on a high if unobtrusive gloss:
I came to love grinding the things he brought from the apothecary--bones, white lead, madder, massicot--to see how bright and pure I could get the colors. I learned that the finer the materials were ground, the deeper the color. From rough, dull grains madder became a fine bright red powder and, mixed with linseed oil, a sparkling paint. Making it and the other colors was magical.In assembling such quotidian particulars, the author acknowledges her debt to Simon Schama's classic study The Embarrassment of Riches. Her novel also joins a crop of recent, painterly fictions, including Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever and Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Can novelists extract much more from the Dutch golden age? The question is an open one--but in the meantime, Girl with a Pearl Earring remains a fascinating piece of speculative historical fiction, and an appealingly new take on an old master. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
The scant confirmed facts about the life of Vermeer, and the relative paucity of his masterworks, continues to be provoke to the literary imagination, as witnessed by this third fine fictional work on the Dutch artist in the space of 13 months. Not as erotic or as deviously suspenseful as Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson, or as original in conception as Susan Vreeland's interlinked short stories, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Chevalier's first novel succeeds on its own merits. Through the eyes of its protagonist, the modest daughter of a tile maker who in 1664 is forced to work as a maid in the Vermeer household because her father has gone blind, Chevalier presents a marvelously textured picture of 17th-century Delft. The physical appearance of the city is clearly delineated, as is its rigidly defined class system, the grinding poverty of the working people and the prejudice against Catholics among the Protestant majority. From the very first, 16-year-old narrator Griet establishes herself as a keen observer who sees the world in sensuous images, expressed in precise and luminous prose. Through her vision, the personalities of coolly distant Vermeer, his emotionally volatile wife, Catharina, his sharp-eyed and benevolently powerful mother-in-law, Maria Thins, and his increasing brood of children are traced with subtle shading, and the strains and jealousies within the household potently conveyed. With equal skill, Chevalier describes the components of a painting: how colors are mixed from apothecary materials, how the composition of a work is achieved with painstaking care. She also excels in conveying the inflexible class system, making it clear that to members of the wealthy elite, every member of the servant class is expendable. Griet is almost ruined when Vermeer, impressed by her instinctive grasp of color and composition, secretly makes her his assistant, and later demands that she pose for him wearing Catharina's pearl earrings. While Chevalier develops the tension of this situation with skill, several other devices threaten to rob the narrative of its credibility. Griet's ability to suggest to Vermeer how to improve a painting demands one stretch of the reader's imagination. And Vermeer's acknowledgment of his debt to her, revealed in the denouement, is a blatant nod to sentimentality. Still, this is a completely absorbing story with enough historical authenticity and artistic intuition to mark Chevalier as a talented newcomer to the literary scene. Agent, Deborah Schneider.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
One gets a sense of what Dutch life was like in Delft, Holland in 1665 and thereabouts during the time when many Dutch people were sailing to the New World.
Tracy Chevalier published "Girl with a Pearl Earring" in 1999 and won international acclaim for her arresting story. Hollywood even made it into a 2003 motion picture (starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth) with a dreamy soundtrack composed by Alexandre Desplat.
It seems like Tracy Chevalier’s story was born out of speculation and a very creative imagination. Her “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is Griet, a young lower class woman who is hired as a temporary maid for the Vermeer family. While working for the Vermeer family, she engages in the most arduous work (laundry, laundry, laundry, oh and more laundry, fetching meat and fish at the marketplace, and helping in any way she can), as she is lowest on the totem pole. It is clear in the beginning that Griet needs to leave her family to work for the Vermeers because her father, the longtime breadwinner as a tile-maker, lost his sight in a kiln accident. Her older brother Frans is in an apprenticeship and her sister, Agnes is far too young, so the burden falls on her shoulders.
Life with the Vermeers is a bit of an adjustment. However, the most interesting part of the story is when Griet interacts with the mysterious Vermeer, observes the progress of his paintings, and cleans his studio. There is something almost magical about the studio and there is a certain amount of reverential awe when Griet regards “him” or “the master.” At first her conversation with Vermeer is very minimal but as they interact more, it’s as if Griet begins to come alive, as if she is was blind but suddenly can see. She witnesses strange inventions like the camera obscura, has a conversation about the colors in the clouds with her employer, has the audacity to move an item in a tableau that Vermeer is painting, and even begins to grind ingredients for him, in order to make paint. This, to me, is the best part of the story. This is the reason why I read Girl with a Pearl Earring. I wanted to hear Griet’s story and in what ways she interacted with the famous painter.
While Vermeer seems to respect Griet with quiet civility or maybe even friendship, just about everyone else in the house seems to ignore or dismiss her. Catharina, the moody, tempestuous, and constantly pregnant wife of Vermeer, dismisses Griet as if she was a fly and seems to lash out at her with vitriol. Tanneke, the senior maid above her (who serves Maria Thins), is rude, condescending, and bossy, but sometimes oddly understanding. It’s apparent from their conversation that Tanneke and Griet are not friends. Maria Thins, mother of Catharina, is a peculiar but insightful woman who gives off the ambience of knowing more than she sees. Interestingly enough, she is one of two people in the house to actually treat Griet with some semblance of respect, helping her in the small ways that she can. Lastly, Cornelia, the devious and clever daughter of Vermeer and Catharina proves herself to be a troublemaker, making life difficult for our heroine.
The last element of the story that I think needs to be mentioned are the characters who are acquaintances of the Vermeer family: the troublesome Van Ruijven, the fascinating Van Leeuwenhoek, and the family butcher, Pieter, with his son, Pieter the younger. Van Leeuwenhoek has a very limited role in the story, nothing more than a friend and fellow like-minded fellow who comes to visit the Vermeers. He provides Vermeer with the camera obscura to provide clarity in his many paintings. Van Ruijven is the superficial patron of Vermeer, often requesting new paintings throughout the book. It’s clear that he is a wealthy man with a lot of money to burn and a fondness for pretty maids. Needless to say, Van Ruijven has a fondness for Griet and constantly pesters her throughout the story, despite the Vermeers’ attempts at hiding her from him. Pieter the elder and Pieter the younger play an interesting role in the story. Pieter the elder is an affable butcher who always has the latest gossip scoop, knowing who is doing what and with who. His son, however, is a rather interesting handsome young man who begins to court Griet throughout the tale, even going so far as to meet her family. It’s clear from the way he talks to Griet that he wants to marry her.
All-in-all, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" was a fascinating and thought-provoking read, leaving me with more questions than answers. Even until the end of the book, I was at a loss for words to describe what exactly was occurring between Griet and Vermeer. The story left me feeling a little uneasy, much like how Griet felt when she observed something in Vermeer’s painting that felt wrong. It feels as if there is something missing in this story. In this case, I like to think it was all of the unanswered questions about Vermeer. As the quote on the book cover states, I also find this book to be a jewel of a read, enriched with all sorts of artistic facts and steeped so strongly in the history of the seventeenth century.
** Book Review by The Merry Wife of Windsor **
First of all, I love the cover! The famous portrait by Vermeer, over the beautiful View of Delft is possibly the most enticing cover I have ever seen, and it certainly lured me to read this novel. Thankfully, I have an older edition, so the tops of the buildings are not obliterated by an ad for the motion picture!
Tracy Chevalier does a wonderful job of weaving together fact and fiction in this novel. The reader is totally transported back in time to the streets of Delft and into the studio of the artist. The characters are totally believable and perfect for the story.
If you have seen the movie, but not yet read the book, please do not judge the book by that unfortunate adaptation. The movie did not come close to capturing the beauty or the spirit of the novel.
Since the uneducated Griet is the story's narrator, author Chevalier has written in a very simple, uncluttered style: There are virtually no compound sentences, few adjectives, and even fewer words describing emotions. This is because Griet's lot in life is to serve; it makes no difference how she feels about people, events, or tasks, so she doesn't dwell on them.
Griet never refers to Vermeer by name; he is always "The Master," or simply "Him." While a bit of an affectation on the part of the author, it reflects Griet's view of him as bigger than life; godlike. She never puts into words her feelings for him and we learn little about Vermeer, except that he took scant notice of his homelife, which was rife with domestic conflict. The book is a leisurely-paced picture of life in 17th century Delft. The last chapter was the most intense and was a satisfying end to Griet's quiet story.